Draft Lecture 5 (spring semester). Chinese internal and international migration

Welcome to this week’s two-part lecture on Chinese migration.

Today we will talk about Chinese migration. We will introduce

  • Historical migration patterns: Late Imperial, Republican, Maoist, Reform (and post-reform) eras.
  • Internal and international migration and the relationships between them. This includes the social organisation of migration (state regulation, political economy); structures and cultures of migrant communities; role of voluntary associations; impact of migration on home communities, employment, entrepreneurship, formation of regional + ethnic identities.
  • Scales, modes, gender, class and state regulation of migration


Part one: 16th to 20th century migration networks and patterns

  • From late 16th century Chinese labourers and merchants established settlements in south-east Asia, producing and trading in commodities such as tine, gold, pepper and sugar.
  • 18th century: approx 4000 to 10 000 Chinese labourers per year travelled
    on Chinese vessels bound for Chinese entrepots in Southeast Asia (Trocki, 2005:149)
  • They were members of egalitarian fraternities based on share-owning partnerships founded by the secret societies that ran peasant village networks in southern China. Members held shares in enterprises financed by merchant capital; distribution of shares and profits based on contributions
  • Shareholding companies (kongsi, gonsi) established themselves in Borneo, leadership by merit based democratic election. By 19th century companies had become federations in West Kalimantan; effectively running their areas as mini-state (Heidhus, 2003)

Periods, scale and destinations (international)

Period Scale Destinations Source
1800 to 1850 320,000 Southeast Asia, Americas, Australasia McKeown 2004
1850 to 1900 7,000,000 Southeast Asia, Americas, Australasia McKeown 2004
1849-1882 258,210 Northern America Yung, 1995
1882-1943 300,955 Northern America Yung, 1995

Chinese emigration increased massively in the second half of the 19th century.

Many of these travelled from Guandong province in southern China (adjacent to Hong Kong), where the European and American prescence had contributed to local instabilities of increased taxation and unequal economic and political relations at at time of civil and ethnic unrest, rapid population growth and natural disasters (Lee, 2006:2). These migrations established pathways for later migrations.

Modes of labour migration (18th to 19th centuries)

Labour migration under two kinds of contract; indentured labour and the credit-ticket system

Indentured labour system (dominant up until mid-19th century)

  • Followed the abolition of slavery, substituting Chinese labourers for African slave labour on plantations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • A major innovation in Chinese labour practices in response to European and American colonial interventions in Chinese trading networks.

Credit-ticket system (dominant from mid-century in California, Australia)

  • Individuals secured credit for their passage though personal contacts in their local communities or through supportive merchant houses, often against the security of property. Workers repaid their loans with interest from their earnings over time.
  • Native-place associations (or, ‘district clubs’) mediated between immigrants and creditors in China and Hong Kong. Clubs and shipping companies agreed to refuse transport back to China until debt paid.
  • Role of these associations viewed by immigrants as a mark of trust rather than bondage. For example, Yee Hing brotherhood (Victoria, Australia) ‘cultivated an ethic of equality, camaraderie, mutual assistance and independence for hierarchical constraints of late imperial China” (Fitzgerald, 2007: 66)

 Internal and international migration networks (16-19th centuries)


The appropriate unit of analysis in the history of Chinese migration is the extended family and long-term family migration strategies.

Nineteenth-century patterns of overseas immigration replicated long-patterns of internal immigration, where families spatially deployed their offspring throughout the empire to ensure the survival of the family or to maximise its status and income.(Fitzgerald, 2007: 48)

The movement and settlement of family members throughout China … was accompanied by a nostalgic commemoration of the original site of settlement (the old village, or guxiang) as a ritual site of family unity

Gendered and classed migration and settlement in the 19th century

The first generation of migrants were generally young men.They were …

 … sent abroad to make a living, to send money home in support of other family members and to test the likely reception in the host society to the prospect of permanent settlement by new sub-branches of the family. .. (Fitzgerald, 2007: 48)

In this generation, many young men married women in China, and lived and worked overseas to support their wives and children. Where there was social reproduction in the new country of residence, it often involved foreign women rather than Chinese women.

The promise of economic security that motivated Chinese men to migrate to the US also motivated many Chinese women. The majority of female migrants to the US during the exclusion era (1882-1943) travelled as wives of Chinese merchants or US citizens. Most Chinese women were not able to enter America independently, but had to rely on male relatives to sponsor or support their admission. The exemption categories for the exclusion laws – merchants, teachers, diplomats and travellers – favoured men with some degree of wealth, and generally excluded women.

Patriarchal attitudes in China and overseas also served to restrict independent female emigration.  “Decent” Chinese women were discouraged from migrating (even as dependents of husbands and other male relatives). US immigration officials viewed independent female migration applicants as probable or possible prostitutes and subjected them to harsher scrutiny (Lee, 2003: 93). Chinese women in this situation adopted strategies and offered evidence of their “proper character” or class status (such as fine clothes, and bound feet, both of which were viewed as features of elite status families) (Lee, 2006:17).

Most Chinese migrants were not the poorest of the poor, as thy had to have the means (or ability to repay) the passage fares and associated costs. The expense and difficulty discouraged less wealthy women, in particular,  from migrating. In Hawaii, discriminatory head taxes worked to restrict independent female migration as most could not afford it, outside of paid sexual labour (which was one of the sole means of earning an income sufficient to pay the debt of the passage). So in Hawaii, as in other American destinations, female migration was generally  restricted to the (dependent) wives of wealthy merchants and professionals (McKeown, 2001).  

In Australia after Federation (1901), wives were prohibited from joining husbands. This led to greater male mobility with women raising families in China.

Western state restrictions on Chinese immigration and settlement (late19th-early 20th century)

From the late 19th century onwards, US states, Australia enacted increasingly restictive policies aimed at curtailing (and eventually, preventing) Chinese immigration and settlement.

Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882 (US)

While Exclusion policy (Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882) hampered migration to the States, many Chinese found a way to challenge or circumvent the exclusion. Nonetheless, the vast majority of post-exclusion emigrants went to other destinations.

Period Scale Destinations Source
1849-1882 258,210 Northern America Yung, 1995
1882-1943 300,995 Northern America Yung, 1995

During the period leading up to exclusion in America (1849-1882) there were 258,210 migrants from China to America (Yung, 1995: 22, in Lee, 2006:1).

The east-coast Antipodean colonies enacted anti-Chinese restrictions in the second half of the 19th century, seeking to limit Chinese immigrants to those most menial and badly paid work and, in particular, barring them from the benefits of the gold rush. Queensland enacted the Goldfields Bill 1876 (Qld) and the Chinese Immigration Restriction Act 1877 (Qld). New South Wales enacted the Chinese Immigration Restriction Bill 1897 (NSW).

In the lead up to federation, Western Australia was coerced into giving up its plans to use Chinese labour in its northern plantation as a condition of statehood. The federation legislation titled Commonwealth Immigration Act (1901) gave the White Australia policy legal status. The policy was specifically aimed at excluding Chinese immigrants and maintaining the Australian nation as a British (primarily ex-English) community. It mirrored the American Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

Ren shan, ren hai 人山人海

Part two: 20th to 21st century migration networks and patterns

Maoist era rural-urban-rural migration

The planned economy and involuntary or ideological migration were key features of internal migration in the Maoist era (1949-1978).

  • large-scale movements of peasants to the cities in 1956–7 with the speed-up of collectivization
  • periodic campaigns to send cadres and intellectuals down to the countryside for ideological remoulding (xiafang)
  • return to the countryside of peasant migrants after 1957 (huixiang)
  • the mammoth campaign forcing high school and university graduates to the countryside (shangshan xiaxiang) between 1968 and 1976 after the Cultural Revolution.
  • routine state unified job allocation system (guojia tongyi gongzuo fenpei, or fenpei for short), part of the economic plan, creating approx 20 million migrants under the hukou [household registration system] (Mallee, Hein: 4).

The hukou system worked to control/regulate the rural/urban populations,  The hukou has been likened to an urban passport. Citizens were required to register in one place of regular residence. Once assigned a residential location, individuals could not elect to change their hukou registration. By 1955, all citizens of China were listed with either an urban or rural household registration. The hukou

  • provided population statistics, identifying individual status
  • was designed to restrict rural-to-urban migration; and agriculture-to-industry labour
  • holding an urban hukou gave a access to food, housing, public health, education, pensions and other basic life necessities provided by the state, and many types of urban jobs. In contrast, the rural population was basically outside the state welfare system.


Guthries suggests that the system restricted migration:

With proper paperwork, in some instances, individuals could legally migrate to urban areas, for example, but few people would choose to do so because it was so difficult to survive outside their hukou registration locations …. (Guthrie, pp. 195-196)

However, other researchers suggest this overlooks the scale of informal mobility (migration outside of the hukuo system).

Hukou system in the current era:

Hukou system continues with some changes. Chinese citizens still generally required live in the place where their “hukou” is kept, but can apply to change it.

  • Chinese state committed to gradual reform, granting urban hukou to migrant workers in small towns and cities, but not megacities (by 2020)
  • Migrant workers in some cities can apply for temporary residence permits which give them some welfare rights for limited periods
  • 260 million migrant workers live in cities but do not enjoy the same benefits as those who hold an urban hukuo (http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/epaper/2013-12/18/content_17182462.htm)

Internal migration networks and circulation

From the 1970’s onwards, migrants such as those from Zhejian migrated and settled in diverse locations throughout China. Once the migrants had established themselves, they recruited labour and business partners from their home communities, building strong and well organised communities able to survive long period without contact with the home community (Xiang Biao, 1999)


Rapid urbanisation built on migrant labour in the reform era


‘Floating population’

Migrant workers are known as the ‘floating population’ because their temporary status  and settlement is difficult

They often stay in ‘urban villages’ or factory compounds in cities, many working in constructionPicture7

Their labour is the engine of China’s rapid urbanisation

‘Migrant workers’ conditions and quality of life for the millions of migrants were often quite appalling with little in the way of government intervention’ . ajeckstein / June 22, 2011Shenzhen: The “Instant City”


Rapid urbanisation example: Shenzhen
Special Economic Zone

Pre-reform era

Shenzhen was a fishing village area of approx. 30,000 people in 1979

Post-reform era

  • 18-20 million people
  • Approx 4 million have Shenzhen hukou,
  • 8 million have permanent residency,
  • 5-8 million “float” unofficially within the city
  • 90% + immigrant pop.
  • Under the Reform strategy Shenzhen became a special economic zone (SEZ) SEZ have economic  & other laws that are more free-market than normal national laws

Reform and Opening policies; these  policies were first tested in Shenzhen and the other SEZs, Zhuhai, Shantou, and Xiamen and later on, Hainan.

SEZ include free trade zones, export processing zones, free zones, industrial parks/estates, urban enterprise zones. Designed to increase foreign direct investment, develop infrastructure, increase employment

Urbanisation, wealth, inequality

Cities like Shenzhen derive great wealth from IT, industry, services, finance, logistics, property.

Housing in these cities is very expensive: For example, Shenzhen is the 7th most expensive city to buy an apartment in the world, with values having increasing 75% 2015-16

In/equality in the reform era

Less Poverty in Reform era:

Chinese People living on less than one US dollar:

  • 1981: 634 million (63.8% of the population)
  • 2001: 212 million (16.6% of the population)

Global effect: worldwide population living under poverty line nearly halved from 1981-2001; China’s contribution very high, including effects of investment in Africa

However, growing inequality in China… especially between rural areas v urban areas

Measured by the Gini coefficient (which ranges from perfect equality at a value of 0 to absolute inequality at a value of 1), the PRC shifted from 0.22 — one of the most equitable scores ever recorded — in 1978, to 0.469 in 2007, ranking China as one of the world’s most inequitable societies (Goodman and Zang, 2008: 2; citing Adelmen and Sunding, 1987, Xinhua, 17 January 2007).

picture 10

picture 9


picture 9

Contemporary International migration from China

Elite migration



picture 11

picture 12

Documentary: China’s Millionaire Migrants


International  sex work migration: aspirational migration

The TiP 2017 stated that Chinese women and girls were sex-trafficked to up to 19 international destinations, and the US State Department report (2008) had previously indicated that most of the sex-trafficking occurred in Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan. The 2008 TiP report claimed that Chinese female migrants were being “forced into commercial sexual exploitation” after having been lured abroad with through “false promises of legitimate employment” (and, typically, provides no evidence for its allegation).

Chin and Finckenauer’s  (2012) ethnographic work with Chinese sex workers in eight areas in Asia (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and mainland China) and two cities in the US (Los Angeles and New York)  found Chinese migrants overseas to be involved in voluntary not forced sex work, and to be motivated by the greater income afforded by sex work overseas. Other ethnographic research in international sex-work destinations including Malaysia, Australia and Cameroon corroborate the tendencies identified in Chin and Finckenauer’s work. For example, B.N. Chin’s (2012) ethnographic work with migrant sex workers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shows that sex work can provide women with the means of earning income for families, for education, and for their own businesses. She argues that it enables a form of cosmopolitanism “from below,” via international travel and language and cultural learning.

Renshaw et al.,s (2015) ethnographic research with Chinese, as well as Thai and Korean migrant sex workers in Sydney and Melbourne similarly found that most report high levels of personal safety and safe sexual health, and none of the migrant sex workers they interviewed reported extortion through debt or identified themselves as victims, and very few claimed to have been trafficked.

Ndjio’s (2009) ethnography with Chinese women and girls doing sex work in Douala,cpd Cameroon, also found that sex work was undertaken voluntarily, either prior to migration (in China) or after working in low paid service-work in Douala. Sex work migration had occurred in two waves, with the first wave in the 1990s working to support the needs of the single male Chinese workers in Cameroon, and the second wave in the 2000s working as part of the increasing development of Chinese-African trade. In both waves, Ndjio suggests, the market for Chinese sex services in Cameroon provided an opportunity for impoverished rural Chinese women.


  • Battistealla, G. (ed.), (2015) Global and Asian Perspectives on International Migration, Switzerland, Springer.
  • Chin, K. and Finckenauer, J.O.  (2012) Selling Sex Overseas: Chinese Women and the Realities of Prostitution and Global Sex Trafficking. NYU Press.
  • Fitzgerald, J. (2007), Big White Lie: Chinese Australians in White Australia, Sydney, University of New South Wales.
  • Guthrie, D. China and Globalization: The Social, Economic and Political Transformation of Chinese Society. Taylor and Francis
  • Miao, L. and Wang, H. (eds.), (2017), International Migration of China: Status, Policy and Social Responses to the Globalization of Migration, Singapore, Springer.
  • Kajunus, A. (2015), Chinese Student Migration, Gender and Family, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kennedy, P, (2010), Local Lives and Global Transformations: Towards World Society
  • Pieke, N. and Mallee, H. (1999), Internal and International Migration: Chinese Perspectives, Richmond, UK. Curzon.
  • Lee, E. (2003), At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882–1943, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press
  • Lee, E. (2006), “Defying Exclusion: Chinese Immigrants and their Strategies during the Exclusion Era”, in  Chan. S. (ed.), Chinese American Transnationalism: The Flow of People, Resources and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.
  • McKeown, A. (2001),Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, Hawaii, 1900–1936, Chicago, Chicago University Press
  • McKeown, A. (2004), ‘Global Chinese Migration’, paper presented to the Fifth Conference of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas, Helsignor, Denmark.
  • Anderson, B. (2006), Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism


Author: shabbycheek

Lecturer and researcher in intersectional cultural studies, historical sociology, American and migration studies. Working in China on America, British, Australian and Chinese social justice issues using Feminist materialist, post-Marxist (Gramscian), Critical Race Studies and post-colonial perspectives.

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